Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Michel Houellebecq's "The Possibility of an Island"

Ray Taras wrote this brilliant review of Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island, translated from the French by Gavin Bowd (Knopf, 2006), for the blog:
If only it were possible to write about the book and not about Houellebecq. But perhaps it's a good thing that his presence in his novels is as palpable as that of the author of a memoir. Presence here refers only to voice and so there can be no question that Houellebecq is in the business of writing fiction, not autobiography.

The French author’s novels have been about calling a spade a spade. The “frank” depiction of Islam in his previous book, Platform, led to charges of inciting racial hatred being filed against him. Subsequently acquitted in a French court, he was linked to Salman Rushdie—not bad company to keep--as examples of Islamo-fascism’s innocent victims.

Overshadowed by Platform’s “Islamophobia” is the fact that it depicts a terrorist attack on a Western nightclub in southeast Asia; the book’s publication date preceded the 2002 Bali bombings by just a couple of months! For good measure, that novel also tore into the burgeoning sex tourism industry—a form of neocolonialism for the author that is fuelled by the boredom suffered by middle-aged men living in affluent Western societies. Every so often they need to travel to possess cheap young female bodies--the only comparative advantage that the developing world really enjoys.

Houellebecq was born on Réunion—an exotic island in the Indian Ocean whose largely Creole population votes in French elections because they are legal citizens of the Republic. Undoubtedly he would relish being compared to the outlandish lead singer of Queen, Freddie Mercury, born in Zanzibar who in his early years also soaked up the tropical exotica and demographic gumbo around him. While no Freddie, Michel has been described as the pop star of the singles’ generation and has recorded a CD of rock music.

The chief narrator of The Possibility of an Island, his latest book, is Daniel1, who is the author’s voice: “the benefit of the humorist’s trade, or more generally of a humorous attitude in life, is to be able to behave like a complete bastard with impunity, and even to profit hugely from your depravity, in terms of sexual conquests and money, all with general approval” (p. 15). Bons mots, Michel.

Towards the “end” of his existence, that is, before his DNA is transferred to his neohuman “offspring” Daniel2, the narrator reflects on his life: “on the intellectual level I was in reality slightly above average, and on the moral level I was the same as everyone else: a bit sentimental, a bit cynical, like most men. I was just very honest, and therein lay my distinction; I was, in relation to the current norms of mankind, almost unbelievably honest” (pp. 277-8). “Brutally honest” is a better rendering.

Daniel1’s artistic output includes a rap record Fuck the Bedouins, songs such as “Let’s Fuck da Niggahs’ Anus,” and a creation called We Prefer the Palestinian Orgy Sluts (p. 100). Elsewhere we read that two millennia after Daniel1, in a world of neohumans devoid of emotions, Daniel25 searches for some exception and finds it: “Through these dogs we pay homage to love, and to its possibility. What is a dog but a machine for loving?” (p. 131). Houellebecq’s photo on the bookflap includes a very happy Corgi propping itself up on his shoulder. Self parody is another literary device safe in Houellebecq’s skillful hands.

The author is very fond of advancing philosophical and behavioral axioms. So now let’s take a test. Examine the following propositions and mark true or false beside each:

1. “nothing, in any other civilization, in any other epoch, could compare itself to the mobile perfection of a contemporary shopping center functioning at full tilt” (p. 21).
2. “the evolution of species in reality owed far less to natural selection than to genetic drift, that is to say pure chance” (p. 91).
3. “swallowing their sperm was not, for men, an indifferent or optional action, but rather it constituted an irreplaceable personal expression; she now gave herself to it with joy” (p. 139).
4. “In the modern world you could be a swinger, bi, trans, zoo, into S&M, but it was forbidden to be old” (p. 148).
5. “She wanted, like all women, to be penetrated, she would not be satisfied with less, it was non-negotiable” (pp. 220-1).
6. “physical security is the condition for free thought; no reflection, no poetry nor idea of the slightest creativity has ever been engendered in an individual who has to worry about his survival, who has to be constantly on his guard” (p. 224).
7. “For Esther, as for all the young girls of her generation, sexuality was just a pleasant pastime, driven by seduction and eroticism, which implied no particular sentimental commitment; undoubtedly love, like pity, according to Nietzsche, had never been anything but a fiction invented by the weak to make the strong feel guilty” (p. 236).
8. “It is the suffering of being that makes us seek out the other, as a palliative; we must go beyond this stage to reach the state where the simple fact of being constitutes in itself a permanent occasion for joy” (p. 260).
9. “The physical bodies of young people, the only desirable possession the world has ever produced, were reserved for the exclusive use of the young, and the fate of the old was to work and to suffer” (p. 273).
10. Instead of choosing “rational depopulation” by accepting falling birthrates in Europe and epidemics and AIDS in Africa, “Mankind had preferred to waste this chance through the adoption of a policy of mass immigration, and bore complete responsibility for the ethnic and religious wars that ensued” (p. 309).

The correct answers are: TTTTTTTTTT. Thus Spake Houellebecq. How many did you get right?

The Possibility of an Island, like the novels that precede it, obsesses about female sexuality. For this reason Houellebecq is regularly attacked as a misogynist. Consider this all-too-typical description of a Houellebecq female lead character. Esther is Daniel1’s eroticized squeeze. “She truly had very few inhibitions: sometimes, when we were alone in the bar, she knelt down between my legs on the carpet and sucked me off while finishing her cocktail with little sips” (p. 144).

No living writer or artist has, arguably, so compellingly captured the fin-de-siècle slut who has thrown off the bonds of feminist strictures as has Houellebecq. When, in real life, female reporters interview him, some stay the night. Un homme fatal. But is that not also quod erat demonstrandum?

Houellebecq likes to examine not only today’s postfeminist sluts but also today’s ethnic hatreds and xenophobia. Reflecting the particularly French fear of the Polish plumber—the spectre of hordes of lowlife East Europeans invading western Europe following EU enlargement--his latest novel juxtaposes characters from the “new Europe” with those from “old Europe.” The East Europeans do not come out well.

In the brothels Daniel1 visits, “most of the girls were Romanian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian, in other words from one of those absurd countries that emerged from the implosion of the Eastern bloc” (p.72). The pornography industry “remained in the hands of shady Hungarian, or even Latvian, jobbers” (p. 110). Aging tourists at a holiday club are entertained to a Miss Bikini Contest where the main contestants are a leggy teenage girl from Budapest and “a platinum-blond Russian, very curvaceous in spite of her fourteen years, who looked a right tart” and eventually “began stuffing her hand down her bikini bottom” (pp. 181-2). After inexorably losing Esther’s cocktail hour charms to younger men, Daniel1 thinks to himself how “I could spend the night with a transsexual Slovenian whore” (p. 223).

The narrator pays one visit to the new Europe. “The summer course was being held in Herzegovina, or in some such region, known primarily for the conflicts that had once drenched it in blood.” The chalets had “red-and-white-checked curtains, and heads of boars and stags decorating the walls, all of it done with a Central European kitsch” (p. 80).

The drive in repressed backward peoples to conform to modernity and its trappings is projected forward in time, to a future social order. “When the Arab countries, after years of being insidiously undermined, essentially through underground Internet connections, could at last have access to a way of life based on mass consumption, sexual freedom, and leisure, the enthusiasm of their populations was intense and eager as it had been, half a century earlier, in the Communist countries” (p. 248).

West Europeans, by contrast, come in for gentler satire in this novel: “standardization was doing its work… and Spain was approaching European, and especially English, norms” about acceptance of homosexuality, kindness to animals, discovery of vegetarian food, and popularity of New Age baubles (p. 51). But Spain, where much of the novel is set and Houellebecq presently lives, is still not quite old Europe: “Spaniards don’t like cultural programs at all, nor culture in general, it’s an area that is fundamentally hostile to them” (p. 216).

The German presence in the novel is represented by a cream which “By applying it to the glans before sexual intercourse and massaging it in carefully, sensitivity was diminished, and the rise of pleasure and ejaculation happened much more slowly” (p. 143). Leave it to the Germans to put sex into the service of science. The one avenger of sexual anarchy and predation in the book is Gianpaolo, a handsome young Italian, who slits the cult prophet’s throat after he loses his girlfriend to him.

How can we imagine old Europe without thinking of France? This time around, Houellebecq confines himself to taking pot shots at a host of iconic Frenchmen, many of whom are unknown to the non-French reader. It seems that he got his skewering of French society out of his system in previous novels, such as Elementary Particles.

The Possibility of an Island relates an extraordinary story about human development. It describes a society in which “The barrier of death is no more” (p. 207), but neither are emotions. It is futuristic in its construction, but does not fit mainstream sci-fi. Which other author can match Houellebecq’s achievement of sublime and plausible character development over a two thousand year period, from Daniel1 to Daniel25?

The novel is a morality tale par excellence, and we can only hope that it is not apocryphal. It fuels the reader’s love-hate relationship with Houellebecq. The Possibility of an Island should be required reading for American college students interested in sex and the self. In its emphasis on civilization's philistinism, it is a worthy successor to Twilight of the Idols.
Many thanks to Ray for the excellent review.

Ray Taras is professor of political science at Tulane University and director of its World Literature program for the past three years.

Click here to read his review of Emmanuel Dongala's Johnny Mad Dog and here to read his review of Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide.

--Marshal Zeringue